What a weekend. Sore arms and shoulders and my eyes are still recovering from the sun glare off the water, this weekend found a large, North American regatta fall into our backyard. As a sponsor of the regatta (representing two sponsoring companies) I was able to talk my way onto a customer and friend’s chase boat. Of course, it provided me an opportunity to rent one of Canon’s super tele monster lenses, so that’s what I did.
C’mon in to see some shots and read my thoughts on the EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM lens…
When my friendly, local rental shop said that the 200-400mm was available, I immediately placed the hold. In the past, I’ve used the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM lens for regattas, and while amazing, it was somewhat limited in that when shooting an event where both your position, and the relative positioning of the subjects you’re shooting are constantly in flux, it provided me with somewhat limited flexibility. The 200-400mm zoom enabled me to maximize my opportunities, considering these variables.
Having also shot the older Canon EF 100-400mm f/4-5.6 L IS USM zoom, I’d thought that I would have had a rough estimation on the size of this new behemoth… Not the case. This 200-400mm bazooka is massive, and taking into consideration that it incorporates a 1.4x Tele Extender built into the lens itself (effectively making it capable of being a 560mm f/5.6 lens when engaged), and boasts a price tag rivaling the running total I spent on my first four cars combined, it is meant to be used in a specialized, professional capacity. I’d also guess that it is normally used with at the very least, a monopod. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible while bouncing around on a boat, so I went caveman, and did my best to hold this optical juggernaut steady with mine own hands. Luckily, it also has wonderful IS incorporated as well. Here it is, next to my admittedly also large and heavy, 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM lens for a quick comparison.
Day 1. Doing my best to resemble someone who was fully versed in handholding super tele lenses while bouncing around (literally, my butt is bruised) in a boat, I slapped this thing onto my 5DII and with lifejacket on, ventured into the chop that 25-30 knot winds, blowing against a current provides and said a little prayer that my $11,000 credit hold would be returned to me by being able to return this lens in full, non waterlogged, working order. Such is life in the Columbia River Gorge, and why it has become such a destination sailing venue.
This particular weekend found the Melges 24 Nationals happening with about 40 boats from all over the US and Canada, most not quite used to sailing in this much breeze, descending upon the mid gorge, ready to go.
Shooting with the EF 200-400 was a wonderful challenge. Its size and weight are plainly not meant to handhold for long periods of time, but the IS (image stabilization) was wonderful, assuming I could keep my shot in frame while bracing myself to keep from testing the weather sealing on this lens by taking it along for a swim, on a boat which was also moving to keep up with the action most of the time. I would have to say that if an IS system can help steady the view through the viewfinder, and aid in the final shots under these conditions, it’s damn good in my opinion. I shot mostly between ISO 200-400 to keep my shutter speeds above 1/1000 sec, even though we had plenty of light which largely negated the need for IS from an end result standpoint, but still helped steady through the viewfinder which at that point, anything I could get, I’d take. I shot wide open, again because I needed as much speed as I could, and honestly, I expected this lens to perform at f/4 (or f/5.6 when using the 1.4x TC with which you lose a stop) which it absolutely did.
Shooting with a 5DII, while perhaps not ideal for action, was ample as it has always been for me. Would the advanced AF of a 1D series, or 5DIII body have been better? Sure, but shooting little action in what I do most of the time, it has again shown me that Canon hasn’t provided enough of an upgrade for a shooter like me to pay the premium for a more advanced AF system personally, coming from my long standing and true workhorse, 5DII.
I know that it’s difficult to asses a lens’ performance via small, web sized files, so below is a larger file from which to see a little more detail. This shot is a great example of what I’ve seen, staring at these files. Taking into consideration that on this leg, we were shooting with the sun high and behind the boats from my vantage, it is also about as challenged as the shooting got in harsh mid day sun. Shooting wide open, there is certainly a little CA visible in the water, but well enough controlled and easily workable to remedy that in post. I’ve not done that here just so you can see a shot without much work done, other than a slight exposure adjustment to bring up some of the shadow areas and bring down the highlights. The point of focus was where the sailor on the left is sitting on the rail as it was a great point of high contrast, and one that even through the bouncing, I was able to aim for.
Click to see it larger, to see what I’m talking about.
This was the first day shooting this lens, and while I’m sure with a little more time, I could have examined the lens and its performance a little more meticulously, I’m happy with the images.
Day 2. Having the lens for a 2 day window, prompted me to get out on a family walk the next day as well. While it would never be my go to ‘walk about’ lens, it wasn’t horribly overbearing for the hour+ long stroll, strapped over my shoulder. Again, handholding it wouldn’t be what I’d assume to be the intended, primary use for a lens this size, but again with the IS, I found it to be workable. I do wish that I’d had enough time and foresight (and free time) to be able to set up a specific shoot to showcase this lens in all its glory, but such is life.
As I’m sure any fellow parents can attest, finding free time outside of parental responsibilities and a couple jobs can be scarce. Not an excuse, mind you, just a way to hopefully temper expectations. I’m not able to provide you with scientific charts, nor really thrilling subject matter (although I’m pretty taken with the fam myself). What I can say is that I’m very, very impressed, as I’d expected to be, with this lens.
Here’s a quick series showing the range shooting at 200mm, 400mm and then 560mm from a fixed location roughly 15 feet away from the point of focus (the central leaf), all shot wide open (f/4 for the 200 and 400mm shots, and f/5.6 for the 560mm shot with the 1.4 tele-extender engaged). Click to see larger.
And here are 100% crops, click to see full sized:
Taking into consideration that these shots were taken on the now almost 7 year old, 21mp 5DII, I’d be curious to see this lens shot on newer sensors, especially the 5DS series, and while I don’t have much of any use for that kind of resolution, I’d imagine this lens would absolutely shine.
Here are a few shots from our day out, all hand held, utilizing the IS, with settings as listed (click any to see larger):
560mm – f/5.6 – 1/125 sec – ISO 800
200mm – f/4 – 1/5000 sec – ISO 400
560mm – f/5.6 – 1/1250 sec – ISO 400
266mm – f/4 – 1/2000 sec – ISO 400
The technical, nitty gritty:
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM with internal 1.4x Extender
- 1 Fluorite, 4 UD Lens Elements
- 25 Elements in 20 Groups
- 9 Blade Aperture Diaphragm
- Includes a handy fixed, rotating tripod collar
- Drop-in, rear 52mm Filter Bayonet II
- 5″x14.5″ (128mm x 366mm) just shy of 8 lbs (3.6kg)
- Comes with a rather fancy carry case (which in and of itself is more expensive than my first two cars combined)
- Heavy duty weather sealing
- Fluorine front and rear lens coating
- 3 mode Optical IS
- Internally focusing (no rotation, nor extension)
- Built in 1.4x Extender turns it into a 280-560mm f/5.6 lens
- Customizable, on lens focus limiter buttons
- Makes breakfast, brews coffee, does all your post work for you…
Who is this lens for? Well, if we’re able to momentarily ignore the price tag, I’d say that most any shooter would love using this lens. It certainly benefits from a tripod, or monopod due to it’s heft, but holy crap it is something magical. In reality, this lens is geared toward high end sport and wildlife shooters. I could see a two body combo with either a 24-70, or 70-200 on one, and this lens on the other for sideline sport shooting, or this as a one lens solution for dedicated birders or wildlifers who are getting relatively close to their subjects. For distant shooting, one of the super-duper teles, like the EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM is probably your preferred weapon of choice, but the versatility of an effective 200-560mm f/4-5.6 zoom with pristine optical performance can’t be too far off the wishlist. While I’d love to own this lens, it’s not realistic enough to justify the price for how little work I’d use it for, but that won’t stop me from renting it if the need arises, and I’d definitely look to rent it over the 300mm or 400mm, or even 600mm primes, myself.
Now, I don’t expect many folks to be shopping to buy this lens, as it is a very specialized optic. However, if you are looking to buy, and do so through my affiliate links below, I’d happily send you holiday cards from here through eternity. I’d also build and send you any one of my custom wrist straps, on me. We may even be able to negotiate my children doing yard work for you at some point in the future, who knows. So, how’s that for pot sweetening, eh? For the rest of us, there is always the rental option, which I fully endorse and suggest if you’re a Canon shooter, and may see the need for a lens like this. Holy smokes this lens is a special kind of awesome.
Just in case you are filthy rich, or a well paid sport or wild life shooter, you can see the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM w/internal 1.4x Extender at B&H HERE or Adorama HERE. Buy through my affiliate links, it costs you no more than normal, I get a small kickback, and you get a one way ticket straight to my heart.
Thanks as always for the read. I’d love to hear your thoughts, your experiences and would be happy to try to answer any questions you may have. Find me via the socials, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Instagram. If you prefer email notifications, please feel free to add your email address at the top right of the page here. You’ll get email alerts as new articles are released.